The Future of Sensory Jurisprudence

eye.jpg[This post continues the debate about Whose Eyes are You Going To Believe, the draft paper Dan Kahan, Don Braman and I have recently begun to circulate. For previous installments, see posts on Balkin, CoOp, Volokh (Kerr), and CoOp (our reply).]

As I hope we’ve made clear, our ultimate claim is not (cf. Kerr) that “Justice Scalia was privileging a conservative white male view” of Scott, but that judges need to be generally mindful of the possibility that their views of facts, and factual dissensus, are as culturally contingent as the public more generally. Thus, we argue for rhetorical humbleness, and for deciding cases on grounds other than a holding that no reasonable juror could see the facts in a certain way. It’s a modest response to the large problem of cognitive illiberalism in legal decision making.

In this post, I’m going to make a bigger claim, one which isn’t so much based on the paper or my co-authors’ views, but is instead just the kind of irresponsible extension of the data that blogging encourages. In short: it’s my view that Scott is a harbinger of a whole mess of cases on the near horizon: a sensory jurisprudence enabled by a total surveillance society.

Total surveillance as a concept is one well-explored by other authors on this blog. But even in Dan Solove’s well-known post – and subsequent highly downloaded article – about the “I’ve nothing to hide” problem, the doctrinal consequences of total surveillance were virtually ignored. And by doctrinal, I do not mean the privacy law consequences: I mean the likelihood that as surveillance becomes omnipresent in most public and some private places, judges will use surveillance evidence [“SE”] in an increasing number of cases to resolve factual disputes.

This use of SE would seem to promise more accurate, efficient, and ex-post legitimate litigation outcomes. The theory would go that most litigation is driven by a dispute about the facts: SE should dispositively resolve such disputes, promoting settlement and (at worst) streamlining trials. Best of all, opinions enlisting SE would be more likely to be persuasive. Thus, if Judge Cardozo, ruling on the relative fault of the parties in, say Palsgraf, could have just embedded a video of the events instead of describing it in his beautiful but inscrutable prose, perhaps readers/viewers would have more likely to agree with him. Or in a sexual harassment case, if the workplace was totally taped, evidence of a hostile work environment would be both clearer and harder to refute. And in the case of coerced interrogations, a judge could simply embed a video, instead of describing it, and say: “look, it’s obvious!”

The connection between SE and surveillance is (ironically) made stark in a video … but to see it, you’ll need to read past the jump.

But this view of SE and the jurisprudence it will produce is too rosy. As we illustrate in our paper, the “facts” a reasonable jury would find after watching the Scott tape are culturally dependent (and also influenced by demographics, wealth, etc.). In a future where more legal cases are resolved based on SE, the danger is that law will ignore this prism effect, and simply embed the evidence as if it resolved the question of “what happened.”

This isn’t to say, of course, that surveillance evidence is a bad thing in and of itself. It can improve accuracy, reduce frivolous litigation, and deter wrongdoing (think about the various aspects of the CIA taping controversy). But, as I suggested in my first post on Scott, the idea that surveillance evidence will distill litigation into a simple search for truth is fundamentally misguided:

[C]ourts’ ordinary role to [is] determine legal facts, instead of the truth of the “event.” We don’t read opinions to tell us what happened. We read them to tell us what facts the courts have found. That is why innocence is not, ultimately, a legal defense: the facts found by a jury control. This separation is a necessary part of the dispute resolution system, enabling finality. [Scott] has the potential to destabilize this delicate regime in areas that would likely matter to some folks more than the civil rights suit of one speeder.

Not convinced? Read the paper (again?). It speaks for itself.

(Folks interested in this topic might also like Jessica Silbey’s Judges as Film Critics: New Approaches to Filmic Evidence)

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2 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:


    I don’t think I understand your argument. You express a fear that judges may misinterpret evidence, and will think that a modest amount of evidence is actually more evidence than they think. But isn’t that always an issue with any kind of fact-finding with any new kind of evidence, whether it’s DNA evidence, fingerprints, computer forensics, surveillance tapes, whether determined by judges or juries? Fact finders may think these forms of evidence mean a lot; on the other hand, judges may make the equally serious error of thinking they mean less than they do. I don’t see any reason to think judges or juries are systematically getting these things wrong.

    As an aside, I have no idea what “the total surveillance society” is. I realize this kind of grand rhetoric is rather fashionable in some circles (see, e.g, Balkin & Levinson), but I never understand what it actually means.

  2. dave hoffman says:


    I agree that misjudging the reliability of evidence is not a new problem. What I suggested in the post, perhaps not as clearly as I’d hoped, is that there are unique problems when judges directly use such evidence – instead of rhetoric & logic & persuasion – in their opinions. (Thus, this isn’t the issue of interpretation of visual evidence, but rather literally embedding videos into opinions.)

    As for TSS, I guess reading some of my co-bloggers, I thought it was a term of art dramatizing the loss of privacy associated with the increasing ability to watch & record (either literally or through an electronic record) strangers’ lives. Maybe Solove has a better, more precise, and less grand definition.